Modjeska Theatre

1134 Historic W. Mitchell Street,
Milwaukee, WI 53204

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LouRugani
LouRugani on October 18, 2014 at 2:03 am

Once upon a time, The Modjeska Theater, 1134 W. Mitchell St., was a neighborhood movie palace, the big daddy of Mitchell Street, the second busiest thoroughfare in Milwaukee after Wisconsin Avenue. The street was so bustling and such a magnet for surrounding South Side enclaves that it boasted six theaters in about as many blocks. Among them The Juneau, dressed up in Venetian splendor, was a big draw and so was the Granada, directly across the street from the Modjeska, and the Pearl, further west on 19th Street. The current Modjeska Theater, built in 1924 and designed by Chicago’s C.W. and George Rapp, needs work, but step inside and you’ll still be transported to the era of the grand movie palace. It’s richly detailed, both inside and out, and it was clearly a temple to motion pictures and to Vaudeville, which shared the spotlight here.

Among the theaters Rapp and Rapp designed were the Warner (“The Grand”, still standing) and The Wisconsin and the Uptown Theaters in Milwaukee, both razed.

An earlier Modjeska – named for Polish actress Helena Modjeska (nee Modrzejewska) who had died in 1909 – was built on the site in 1910 by Milwaukee movie moguls, brothers Thomas and John Saxe, who built a companion place Downtown on Third Street, the Princess (demolished in the ‘80s). The old Modjeska was damaged in a fire, but its 900 seats were inadequate to meet demand anyway, and so the old Modjeska was torn down to make way for the 2,000-seat theater that still stands today — though with a somewhat smaller capacity now — wrapped in terra cotta and currently undergoing what supremely knowledgeable theater historian Larry Widen (author of “Milwaukee Movie Palaces,” aka “Silver Screens”) — who had been leading the work before parting ways with the theater’s owners — called, “a really good clean up.”

“This is a Downtown-style movie palace,” he said as we stood at the foot of the stage and gazed up to the ceiling, three stories above. “It had all the trappings. There were five other theaters on this block and this was the most expensive. This was the pricey one. Usually what would happen is the movies would premiere Downtown. I think they played about a week. You know, the big Bogey or Cagy picture or whatever would start out Downtown. Then it would make its way out to the first tier of the suburban theaters and this was one of them. This one, the Uptown, the Oriental, the Tower, the Avalon, The National and from there they would kind of make their way down the street from 35 cents to a quarter, 20 cents, 10 cents to 5 cents.”

The theater has been closed for nearly five years and United Artists stopped running it in 1989. It was still screening films into the 1990s. The Modjeska had, for a period, been the Midwest home office for UA and by the early ‘80s it was a budget cinema, admitting patrons for $1 a head. Later, Stewart and Diane Johnson bought the theater and it became home to the Modjeska Youth Theater Co. and the venue continued to also host concerts and other events on a rental basis. Magician David Seebach often staged events there. In 2007, the youth group and the Mitchell Street Development Opportunity Corporation (MSDOC) partnered to create the Modjeska Theater Project, which purchased the theater, and three years later the youth group folded. Now, the Modjeska is owned by a non-profit trust called the Mitchell Street Development Opportunities Board. Having been vacant for five years, the theater already was in need of some TLC. Then last winter happened. More specifically, a pipe burst in the basement and here were about 900,000 gallons of water down there in February. Though it seems mostly dry and, remarkably, doesn’t smell too musty anymore, there’s a visible high water mark on the walls.

“Right now there is mostly painting and cleaning going on,” says Project Manager Jesus Enrique Nañez, who’s on the theater’s board. “We have several contractors that are volunteering some time for electrical and plumbing work to make sure we are up to code. The heaviest work load is in funding these repairs.” The roof has been redone and a crew of volunteers is helping to repaint and repair parts of the theater’s many surviving details, like gorgeous railings up to the balcony lobby, and scrollwork in the theater. The entry lobby is adorned with plaster motifs and appears to be in fine shape.

The orchestra pit was covered by the youth group when it extended the stage in the 1990s. Two boxes remain, though the organ and the pipes that would’ve been housed in lofts above the boxes are long gone. “As of right now we do not have a projected opening date,” says Nañez. “We have a goal to open some of the theatre space to artistic and community based groups in 2015. However, we will provide public access to the theatre during our participation in the Doors Open Milwaukee event and we encourage people to come over to check out the theater and all of the renovation progress.” The board expects to present a mix of programming in the theater, including a variety of films about 25 percent of the time. Concerts and performances by a range of arts groups interested in the space will round out the schedule.

The Modjeska was built as a stop for regional vaudeville acts and has hosted live music for decades. Marty Robbins played there in ‘61 and in more recent decades the theater has hosted performances by Marilyn Manson, They Might Be Giants (during whose concert the stage famously gave way), Ministry, Cheap Trick, Judas Priest, Gregg Allmann and others. “The stage was built with an orchestra pit with an organ and an organ box and a full stage,” said Widen. “The stage is now 28 feet deep to the back wall and it’s 40 feet from proscenium opening to opening. You can get a pretty good-sized act on the stage.”

Playing to the local crowd is what theaters often did, and the Modjeska screened Polish films in the 1940s to draw on the area’s heavily Polish population. In that spirit, Widen had said the Modjeska planned to spotlight films currently being made in the reinvigorated Mexican movie industry and Nañez suggests that remains the plan survives.

There are panoramic views of the city from the roof, and old offices above the retail shops that are part of the building. On the opaque glass panels in some of the doors you can make out the names of former occupants, which had been painted on. In one former office, the youth group had created a “mini Modjeska,” a tiny theater. Behind the screen you can open the windows and step out on to the marquee. If you lean out you can look straight down Mitchell Street, down to 11th, where the streetcar used to bend the corner around. Up in the projection booth, there’s an open toilet and sink in the corner because projectionists weren’t allowed to leave the booth under any circumstances, so the facilities were demanded by their union. Above the balcony level are two rooms where the films were assembled for projection.

In the basement, newly built wooden racks hold the letters that name the films on the marquee. This is where the dressing rooms for performers are located and the basement is a maze of rooms. Down here it’s dark, but one can see the quirky patterns on the walls left by the water of the winter flood. There are also walls adorned with graffiti left by performers of shows performed on the stage above. It was on the list of buildings for the 2014 Doors Open Milwaukee event, Sept. 20-21.

There’s work to be done, and only a portion of the estimated $150,000 required to complete the work has been raised. Much of the remainder is expected to be generated by revenue once the theater reopens. “This project is being completed by mostly volunteers and donations,” says Nañez. “Painting, cleaning up, creating a good buzz about the theater. Every donation helps us buy vital supplies needed to move the project forward. There will be great opportunities for individuals and companies vested in the area to have naming rights of different sections of the theater. we have launched our first mailer requesting donations and we have had some great results come in already. We are certainly in need of more support and would appreciate donations and volunteers at this time.”

If you are interested in donating time, effort and/or money, please contact Jesus E Nañez at (414) 982-9378 and help restore a vital part of the social history of Milwaukee’s South Side.

mgriffin189
mgriffin189 on July 15, 2014 at 7:35 am

The Modjeska is scheduled to reopen this fall! I am excited and hope that this is the first step towards a full renovation. http://m.jsonline.com/more/business/reopening-modjeska-theatre-crucial-to-paying-for-restoration-b99265138z1-258726641.html

Ret. AKC (NAC) CCC Bob Jensen, Manteno, Illinois
Ret. AKC (NAC) CCC Bob Jensen, Manteno, Illinois on August 27, 2013 at 12:40 pm

A Golden Voiced Barton Theater Pipe Organ, 3/10, manual/rank, keyboards/sets of pipes, was shipped from the Barton organ factory in Oshkosh, Wisconsin in 1924. In the 1950’s the organ was removed and the pipe organ chambers were used to install the air conditioning units. Know what happened to the organ?

Torn_Curtain
Torn_Curtain on October 5, 2012 at 5:56 am

A few photos from September 2012 are here: link

There is still a notice in the window on how to contribute to its restoration. Hopefully it will be preserved.

MiltonSmith
MiltonSmith on June 2, 2012 at 2:46 am

Sounds like this theater’s days are numbered, sadly.

Trolleyguy
Trolleyguy on March 4, 2012 at 3:13 am

The theater is closed. Some friends of mine had been doing volunteer work last year on the electrical systems but finally gave up because of lack of financial support.

MiltonSmith
MiltonSmith on March 4, 2012 at 12:54 am

I believe this theater is closed now. The link to the official website seems to come up with a bunch of characters that look like Chinese letters. Anyone know for sure?

TLSLOEWS
TLSLOEWS on June 12, 2010 at 7:50 pm

Strange photo posted May 5th by Chuck,

CSWalczak
CSWalczak on May 27, 2010 at 5:55 pm

I posted someting along those lines on May 3 – see above.

DavidZornig
DavidZornig on May 27, 2010 at 3:54 pm

There was a recent (early May) story in the Milwaukee Sentinel that the Modjeska is now closed. The youth group that had been operating it at a deficit had to close it’s doors. Maybe someone can post the link.

CSWalczak
CSWalczak on May 3, 2010 at 9:30 pm

This theater has hit a bump in the road financially as the youth theater that was its principal tenant has folded. Community leaders are rallying to preserve the theater’s future; story here: View link

Mike Rogers
Mike Rogers on April 26, 2010 at 8:15 pm

I think our MODJESKA in Augusta looks a bit better.

Mike Rogers
Mike Rogers on January 2, 2010 at 11:37 pm

The Modjeska Theatre in Augusta is currently closed.It had been turned into a nightspot and it is used for private parties. It is on CT if anyone wants to read about it. Its History is much like theone here.

Mike Rogers
Mike Rogers on October 24, 2009 at 7:38 pm

I have added history of the MODJESKA in Augusta.For you info.

Broan
Broan on October 6, 2007 at 10:30 pm

Recent photos of this theatre are HERE

DavidHurlbutt
DavidHurlbutt on September 18, 2007 at 7:11 pm

Milwaukee’s Common Council’s Development Committee today recommended approval of a 3.1 million dollar proposal for improving some key landmarks, including the Modjeska Theater, on Mitchell Street.

Pieman
Pieman on September 2, 2007 at 5:53 pm

I grew up on 12th and Scott, born in 1954.I remember going to see a 2 or 3 movie matinee on Sunday afternoons for a quarter. Kids were seated on the floor in front of the first row and up the aisles. Apparently there were no capacity rules. Also being bombarded
with candy from the balcony. We would exit into the alley.The daylight was blinding. Schlitz brewery, where my father worked, also had there Christmas party there. We were all given a huge mesh stocking, packed with toys and candy after the show.Very fond, distant memories!!

LouisRugani
LouisRugani on August 15, 2007 at 7:05 pm

The city of Milwaukee is looking to restore the MODJESKA THEATRE (Rapp & Rapp) and West Mitchell Street itself to its historic grandeur with a proposed $3.1 million tax incremental financing district. “It’s like a step forward into the past; Mitchell Street has a history of being a thriving commercial corridor,” said Joel Brennan, assistant executive director and secretary of Milwaukee’s redevelopment authority. The TIF district (PDF) would stretch from South Fifth to South 16th streets and cover all properties one block north and south of Mitchell Street. It would also include a commercial stretch of West Forest Home Avenue between South 13th and South 15th streets. The TIF money would be split in half into two separate funds â€" one for commercial projects and a second for infrastructure. A development fund totaling $1.5 million would give grants or loans to retail projects on Mitchell Street to help pay for work like restoring historic stone building facades. “Those are certainly the types of funds to help make projects pop in the corridor that otherwise might be financially unfeasible,” Brennan said. Brennan and the TIF plan pointed to three projects as likely recipients of that money â€"redeveloping the Goldmann’s department store, restoring the Modjeska Theater and fixing up the Walgreens building at 1101 W. Mitchell. Any funding for those projects would require separate redevelopment authority and Common Council approval after the TIF district is created.

The Modjeska Theater’s owners â€" Mitchell Street Development Opportunities Corp. and nonprofit Modjeska Theater Co. â€" are facing renovation costs ranging from $7.5 million to $8.9 million. The improvements would include restoring the building’s exterior masonry, new theater seating and sound systems, and upgrading its heating, cooling, plumbing, fire protection and electrical systems. The owners plan to continue to use the restored building for theater productions but also hope to attract meetings and conventions.

To create a TIF district, the city borrows money to pay for projects and then repays its debt using any increases in property taxes within the district. The city estimated the Mitchell Street TIF district would repay its $3.1 million in debt by 2025.

Piercedtrailerparkdiva
Piercedtrailerparkdiva on December 14, 2006 at 8:43 pm

I’m 29 years old and I grew up in milwaukee and I saw my first “scary” movie on the big screen at the modjeska which was Children Of The Corn

JimRankin
JimRankin on October 16, 2006 at 7:36 am

I just got an inquiry concerning the Modjeska from a woman working with the Mitchell Street Development Opportunities Corp, in conjunction with the “Modjesks Theater Company” regarding raising funds to purchase the theater as well as listing it on the National Register of Historic Places. It is nice to see interest in this lesser Rapp & Rapp design.

JimRankin
JimRankin on October 2, 2006 at 4:34 pm

Neither here nor www.cinematour.com list any other MODJESKA, but quite possibly www.historictheatres.org does; contact them by E-mail through their Executive Director’s address there.

Piercedtrailerparkdiva
Piercedtrailerparkdiva on October 2, 2006 at 3:10 pm

I grew up in milwaukee and I used to see movies here with my aunt and other family members when I was a kid in the 80’s my grandparents and used to go to the Modgeska on “dates” and The whole family would choose the modjeska if they/we wanted to see a movie it was our “family” theater I was wondering if anyone can post any 80’s modjeska pictures because that would be how I remember it.

JimRankin
JimRankin on August 11, 2006 at 10:27 am

Just to make it clear, the photo linked to above by “Ken MC” shows the original Modjeska somewhat on the left; it is not the same building mentioned by “exModjeskaTech” in the comment above.

kencmcintyre
kencmcintyre on August 10, 2006 at 10:37 pm

I don’t think this photo has been posted yet:
http://tinyurl.com/zpamo